Interview with Soniah Kamal

Let me begin by saying that Soniah Kamal is a truly delightful person. If you don’t know why, you need to read her essays on how she became a writer and how she met her husband or watch her TED talk.

Soniah is coming out with a new book in January 2019, and as Jane Austen lovers, we can’t wait. Here’s the publisher’s summary and you’ll see why:

Of course, we just had to interview Soniah and she graciously answered our questions with her usual wit and humour. We’ll do another update once we’ve had a chance to read the book, and you can pre-order it here!

This is a two-part question around the theme of family disgrace. Disgrace is something that I think especially resonates with those of us who live in communities where your family status can determine access to important/necessary things, especially if you belong to a certain class.

So part 1 is: could you tell us where the inspiration for the disgrace that happens in the book to the Binat family came from (if it happened to someone you know or it’s something you’ve seen before, etc.)?

And part 2 is: could you perhaps discuss the function of disgrace, since it seems like it simply takes on different forms, thanks to social media and other platforms, and never goes away regardless of how “modern” a society may perceive itself to be?

Unmarriagable is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan. The very core story of Pride and Prejudice is a ‘disgrace’ i.e. Mrs. Bennet has five unmarried daughters who are growing older by the day.

I’m originally from Pakistan and twenty years ago, when I married at age 24, I was considered over the hill. Thankfully over time, the supposed over-the-hill age has increased quite a bit, however the pressure to marry remains quite the same.

There are so many disgraces in Pride and Prejudice. For instance, one is the entail, meaning in Austen’s time 200 hundred years ago, women could not inherit property. Instead, property went to the first male heir in line, in this case Mr. Collins (We see the same in Downton Abbey and thus Matthew Crawley’s entrance into the story).

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen very much meant to critique this inheritance disgrace as well as the fact that women of the Bennets’ class had no recourse to earning an income of their own except as governesses. Being a governess, however, meant an in-between class status because one was neither servant nor gentry. As such, in the event of Mr. Bennet’s death and in order to not find themselves on the street, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia simply have to marry well for financial security. Of course the biggest ‘disgrace’ of all is Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham. Had Lydia not managed to get Wickham to ‘put a ring on it’, her disgrace would have been her ruin as well as her sisters’.

The moral standards in Pride and Prejudice remain applicable to modern day Pakistan even though, thankfully, women can now work and procure their own financial security. Two hundred years ago, even without social media, I’m sure Lydia (and in Unmarriageable her namesake, Lady, with all puns intended) would have been the subject of gossip for years to come, but now with social media it would have been relentless. As many have found out, social media excels in not forgetting any scandal although, given Lydia Bennet’s nature, she may very well have reveled in her notoriety and enjoyed all the opportunity social media would have provided to keep gossip alive. In fact my character Lady Binat has very distinct views on disgrace and who should really be the ‘disgraced’—those gossiped about or the gossipmongers?

Can you tell us more about how you saw a story about a Pakistani family in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and why you think this work is often revisited by many Asian films and TV dramas? What makes it so compelling even today?

I’ve been wanting to retell Pride and Prejudice in a contemporary Pakistani-Muslim milieu every since I read the novel in my teens. Partly because the story of five very different sisters and a mother who just wants her daughters to ‘settle down’ is so very Pakistani in its concerns, but also because growing up in a postcolonial country in an English school system, I really longed to read fiction that reflected my world and upbringing. My mother had quite a bit of Mrs. Bennet in her in so far that she thought no one would marry me because I was too opinionated for my own good and not timid about sharing said opinions. Of course, the risk in such a culture is that people may marry simply because of the pressure to do so, which remains high in Asian cultures and thus I believe that reason for [Mrs. Bennet’s] enduring popularity.

In Austen’s time, genteel women could not work and so simply had to get married for financial security. Thankfully in today’s Pakistan, women no longer have to resort to marriage simply for economic security and yet the pressure to marry remains. In Unmarriageable, I wanted to explore what that pressure can do to the psyche of a modern woman who can earn her own paycheck and even out-earn a man/husband and yet is told that without marriage and children, her life is lacking.

A lot of our readers are struggling writers, so could you tell us about your own road to becoming a published writer?

Twenty years ago, when I first began writing professionally, I started out with short stories. My first story published was ‘Papa’s Girl.’ I was living in Denver at the time and had read the story during an open mic at a café. The editor of the Talus Review, an e-zine, heard it and asked for it then and there. It was quite exciting. I actually prefer my work be published online because it’s easily accessible to reader worldwide.

My journey to publishing a novel was much harder. On his deathbed, my late grandfather, [who was] Kashmiri and an exile, asked me to write about Kashmir and the territorial war between India and Pakistan even as may Kashmiris want to be a sovereign nation.

I honored that request and wrote a novel, An Isolated Incident. It was very challenging writing sensitively about an ongoing conflict as well as doing justice to the story of idealistic young Pakistani-Kashmiri-American man who grows up in American suburbia only to have his idealism tested in the real world. In fact it took me ten years to write it well (I want to emphasize the writing-it-well meaning learning the craft of novel writing) even as in-between life happened such as having my three kids and moving around a lot.

However, even more challenging than writing An Isolated Incident was getting it published. One U.S. editor objected to how much pizza the Pakistani-American family in the novel were eating. Surely they would eat something exotic? Another said that it was too bad the novel was not set in the U.S.-war-de-jour (at the time Iraq) because that’s what ‘Americans’ were interested in reading. Thankfully, the Indian publishing industry had begun to expand and my then-lit agent sold An Isolated Incident there.

My second novel Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan had an altogether different trajectory. I wrote it in two months, which I attribute to twenty years of writing-writing-writing and thus thoroughly learning my craft. Then my current agent sold it to Penguin Random House within months. So here’s my takeaway for aspiring writers: write what you believe in and never give up and cultivate the two strengths writers needs in huge degree–the ability to withstand ridiculous amounts of rejection and the ability to persevere no matter what.

Lastly, for short stories, poems, essays, the road of getting published is very simple: SUBMIT. The journal database in Poets and Writers is excellent for finding the type of journal you want to submit your work to.

Finally: romantic comedies are often inadvertent (or sometimes deliberate) critiques of the worlds they portray. Is there any class or cultural (or both) critique that you wanted to point out through the romance in UNMARRIAGEABLE?

In staying true to Jane Austen, I concentrated less on the romance between my counterparts for Elizabeth and Darcy or Bingley and Jane. Instead, like Austen, I was interested in exposing social hypocrisies and the resultant humorous situations. Austen’s wit and irony is legendary and she very deliberately critiques the class structure of the world she lived in through human follies and foible. Would Darcy come to realize that Elizabeth was in all ways his equal? Would Elizabeth be able to teach him any humility?

In fact, I was quite surprised to see how romance seem not to be Austen’s primary interest, evident in how quickly she skips over proposals and weddings. Austen seems to prefer peeling back the layers of a class system and the misery it can create if you don’t belong to the ‘right echelon’. I wanted to do the same in Unmarriageable, as well as tell a story about a culture in which women can now earn their own incomes and yet the pressure to get married often plagues even the highest earners.

In Pakistan, women often, and even men, are made to feel that if you don’t marry and have children you are lacking. That said, it was such a joy writing this novel and creating characters equivalent to Austen’s. I hope readers laugh as much as I did over my version of Mr. Collins and Caroline Bingley as well as enjoy the Pakistani settings I’ve substituted for places like Longbourne and Rosings. The challenge of doing a retelling (versus an ‘inspired by’) is that you have to stay within the boundaries of the original plot and hit all the beats as well as stay true to the essence of all the characters.

But then for readers who are not coming for ‘an Austen experience’, you have to write a story that stands on its own legs. Additionally, setting it in Pakistan meant writing for those familiar with the culture as well as those reading about Pakistan for the very first time. Writing Unmarriageable was a real juggling act and I relished every second of it.

photo credit: Renata Dennis

For more of Soniah’s writings, go check out her Website here!

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